A simple way to get rid of clutter

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I know someone who’s computer desktop perpetually looks like it was the site of a bombing run. Every inch is covered with shortcuts, downloads, documents, and set-up files. She has multiple copies of jpegs and pdfs, because she wasn’t sure if the original downloaded properly, or she couldn’t find it.

I don’t know about you but I couldn’t function that way. I’m not a clean freak. I just find it easier to get things done when my work space is reasonably uncluttered and organized.

And yet there are times when my desktop gets messy. When that happens, the first thing I do is gather up everything and put it in a new folder.

Out of sight, out of mind.

The next step is to clean out the folder and put things where they belong. I might do this right away but I usually do it later, when I have some downtime.

Doing it this way allows me to quickly get back to work. When I’m ready to tackle the folder, I’m able to take my time and make better decisions about what to keep and where to put it.

Okay, maybe I do have some issues.

Anyway, if you find clutter distracting or it impairs your productivity, you might give this method a try.

You can do the same thing in the physical world. When you have too much clutter on your desk–papers, files, books–put everything into one or two piles and when you’re ready, chop those files down to size.

If you have a messy closet, put everything into boxes as the first step. Later, go through the boxes deliberately, putting away the things you know you need and getting rid of everything else.

You can do the same thing on your smartphone. If you have too many apps, put them all into digital folders or push them to another screen. Or delete everything. Only put back (or re-download) the apps you know you will use.

De-clutter first. Organize second.

I keep my digital world organized with Evernote

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How to overcome procrastination and train your brain to resist distractions

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I was watching a video about how to overcome procrastination. The presenter talked about the Pomodoro technique which I sometimes use to help me focus, particularly on tasks I’m avoiding.

Basically, you set a timer for 25 minutes (or whatever you choose) and work until the timer goes off. You then take a break for five minutes and go at it again. If you’re still not done after three or four sessions, you take a longer break and then get back to work.

The idea is to get ourselves to focus with the promise that we only have to do it for a short period of time. It gets you started, which is the hardest and most important part of getting anything done.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself procrastinating on certain tasks, get yourself a Pomodoro app or use your kitchen timer and give it a whirl.

But here’s the thing.

Even though you have promised yourself to keep working until the timer sounds, if you’re like most people, you will be tempted to stray. You’ll feel the urge to check your email or take a peak at social media. Or you’ll realize you need another cup of coffee. Or the phone will ring and you’ll feel compelled to at least see who is calling.

You know you must resist these urges but sometimes they get the better of you.

The video presented a simple technique for conquering these urges and resisting distractions. Have a sheet of paper handy, or open a text file, and whenever you feel tempted by the urge to do something else, write it down.

Writing it down allows you to acknowledge the urge and postpone it until your next break. It helps to dissipate the urge and release its hold over you.

It also allows you to identify things that typically distract you. You can then take steps to eliminate them before they can distract you by doing things like turning off your phone or closing browser tabs that don’t relate to your work.

Write down (and postpone) your urges and you will become their master instead of their servant.

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How much time should you put into each project?

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I recently read an article about the best way to pay down your debts. Logic dictates that you should pay more towards the balances with the highest interest rates. According to something called the “Snowball Method,” however, it’s better to first pay off the accounts with the smallest balances.

Paying off small balances tends to have a psychological effect on your sense of progress, providing additional motivation to pay down the rest of your debts.

Years ago, when I had several credit cards with varying balances and interest rates, I intuitively made an effort to do just that. Instead of making a proportionally bigger payment on accounts with bigger balances and higher interest rates, I focused on paying off the $500 department store balance, first.

It simplified bill paying and, more importantly, it felt good to see those accounts zero out. I still had the bigger accounts to contend with but overall, it felt like I was making progress.

Does the “Snowball Method” apply to anything else? I suspect it does. If you have five projects on your plate right now, in determining how much time to give each project, it would be logical to consider the potential payoff of each project. Projects with a bigger payoff should get more of your time, one would think. But that would ignore the psychological impact of completing some of the smaller projects, first.

I know, almost every expert says we should do the most important things first so that we make progress on them, and only then work on the less valuable tasks. (Big rocks first.) Hell, I’ve preached that myself.

But we’re human and sometimes we need to do smaller things so we can cross off them off our list and have a sense of progress.

Building your practice is easier when you know The Formula

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How to choose the right tasks to do today

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Yesterday, I said that a good way to avoid being overwhelmed by a large to-do list is to make a list of 3-5 tasks you are committed to doing today and putting everything else out of the way (on other lists). I said your “today” list should be comprised of your most urgent and import tasks, but how do you decide what those are?

Urgent is pretty easy. These are tasks you must do today or bad things will happen. One expert says urgent tasks are ones you would be willing to stay late at the office to finish. If it can wait until tomorrow, it’s not urgent.

Works for me. But what about “important” tasks? How do we choose those?

One way to do that is to “start with the end in mind,” as Covey says, and work backward. That means first deciding on the outcomes you want to achieve today, this week, or relatively soon. Once you know the outcomes, brainstorm what you have to do to accomplish them, or take the next step in that direction.

If one of your desired outcomes this week is to file a motion in an important case, you would first write down all of the necessary action steps (e.g., assemble a factual time line, research, write points and authorities, write a declaration, write the first draft, and so on). From that list, you would choose what to do first and put that on your to-do list for today.

If a desired outcome this week is to get at least one referral from your professional contacts, possible actions would include going through your database to identify professionals you want to contact, writing emails, and making phone calls. Put one or more of those tasks on your list for today.

Now, how do you decide on the outcomes you want to achieve? By first looking at your goals. But that’s a subject for another day.

How to use Evernote for getting things done

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Getting things done by re-thinking the definition of a to-do list

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No matter what task management system you use, or even if you don’t use one at all, the odds are you have a seemingly endless list of things to do.

You might keep them in an app. You might keep them on paper. You might keep them in your head. But there’s your list, a mile long and growing every day, overwhelming you to the point where you don’t want to look at it anymore.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But I have a new weapon in the battle of wits between my lists and my sanity and you may want to use it.

It starts with thinking about a to-do list as simply a list of things to do TODAY.

Not tomorrow or next week. Today.

It is a list of 3 to 5 tasks you are committed to doing today because they are urgent or important.

Take a deep breath and imagine a list of ONLY 3 to 5 tasks. That’s a list you can and will do.

If you find yourself resisting a task, break it up into 15-minute bites. You’ll be less likely to procrastinate when “it’s only 15 minutes”.

You can also use 15-minute increments for bigger projects. I’m working on something right now that’s tedious and will take many hours to complete. I had put it off for a long time but I’m doing it now because my task list only commits me to 15 minutes. I can do more than 15 minutes if I want to, and I often do, but only if I want to.

Yay me.

Now, what do you do if you have more than 5 important or urgent things to do today? You keep them on a second list.

Your first list (today) has your most important or urgent tasks on it. Your second list is what to do after you’ve taken care of those tasks.

Your second list has no more than 15 or 20 tasks on it. It includes other things you need to do today, and things you need to do in the next week or so. Or things you’d like to consider doing.

When you have completed the tasks on your today list, you look at list number two and choose additional tasks.

Two lists: 3 to 5 most important tasks you are committed to doing today. 15 to 20 back-up or “next” tasks.

Check your today list frequently throughout the day. Check your second list once a day, after you have finished your today list.

Put everything else–all of the someday/maybes, ideas, things you’re not committed to doing–on a third list. Check that list once a week. Skim through it and find things to put on your first two lists and then put your third list away until the following week.

I’ve been doing this for about a week and it’s making a big difference in how I feel about my lists and in my overall productivity. My lists are much more manageable and much less daunting.

And, you can use this with any other task management system because it’s basically a way to combat overwhelm by limiting the number of tasks in front of you and the amount of time you commit to doing them.

One more thing.

While your first two lists are purposefully limited in number, list number three (everything else) will no doubt grow to hundreds of entries, many of which don’t need to be considered each week. To keep list number three from overwhelming you, at some point, you’ll want to segment it so that you don’t have to look at every task or idea on it every week.

You can do that by creating sub-lists or by using software to label or tag items to consider at some point in the future or under certain specified conditions. I have a list of more than 1000 blog post ideas, for example, but I only look at that list occasionally.

How to use Evernote for getting things done

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Today’s a good day to get organized

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Any day is a good day to get organized but the day before a holiday is especially good. You’re relaxed and looking forward to Thanksgiving. You’re probably not in the mood to do a lot of serious work. And you like the idea of starting the week without 102 things to do and no idea where to start.

Take a look at your email inbox. This would be a good time to zero it out. Go through the first few hundred (the rest are probably too old to bother with). When you find something that you want or need to do, tag or label it, or forward it to your task management software, and then archive everything else. It will still be there if you need it but you won’t have to look at it.

Take a look at your tasks and projects and do the same thing. Flag those that are important and should be done soon and put everything else out of sight (e.g., archive, someday/maybe, or tagged for future review).

Take a look at your current and upcoming projects. Consolidate your notes and ideas, clean up your outlines and task lists and get things ready so that when you see them next, you can finish them quickly or start them with aplomb.

Get organized today and then enjoy the morrow. Clear your mind, fill your belly, and give thanks for what you have and what the future has in store.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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How to create a task you’ll actually do

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If you find yourself procrastinating about certain tasks on your list, one reason might be the task description itself. If it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do, if the task looks daunting or overly time consuming, it’s easy to see why you might put it off until later or skip it completely.

You can avoid this by writing better descriptions. Here are three ways to do that:

1) Make sure the task is something you can DO.

A task should be something simple, meaning something you can actually do.

You can’t “buy a car,” for example. There are too many things you need to do first: research makes and models, read reviews, consider extras and add-ons, choose a color, compare prices, take a test drive, inquire about financing, and so on.

Buying a car is a “project” not a task. Break up your projects into the component tasks and record those on your list.

2) Use ACTION VERBS to describe your tasks

Describe each task clearly and concisely. Start the description with an action verb: write, call, review, outline, research, send, etc.

If your task is to compare prices on your new car, for example, you might write, “Call five dealers for written quotes”.

Specific, clear, concise, and doable.

3) Make it EASIER to do

The easier (and quicker) it is to do a task, the more likely it is that you’ll do it. When writing the task description, include additional information and resources you’ll need so you don’t have to go looking for them when it’s time to do the task.

If the task is to call someone, put the phone number in the task description. Add notes you might need to reference during the call.

If the task is to review a document, embed the document or a link thereto in the task description. If you need to fill out a monthly report, include the template or the previous month’s report to refer to and/or modify for this month’s report.

Make your tasks something you can do, make the description action-oriented so you’ll know exactly what to do, and make the task easier to do by adding additional information and resources.

“Get more referrals” is a project, not a task. Here’s everything you need to do

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Is this the key to success?

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Pastor, business owner, speaker, and author, the late Mark Yarnell, offered his recipe for productivity and success. He said, “Work on one thing at a time. Do it right. Finish it.”

Simple. But not always easy to follow.

Working on one thing at a time is difficult for a lot of people. But it’s easy to see the value of doing so. Numerous studies prove that multi-tasking is inefficient to the extreme. Fortunately, there are strategies and tools aplenty that can help us to curb this habit.

“Do it right” certainly makes sense, but we must recognize that the way we learn to do it right is usually by first doing it wrong.

This leads to the third piece of advice, to finish what we start. That’s the key to making everything work.

When we finish what we start, we can move onto something else. No chance for multi-tasking. We’ve also learned something so the next time we do it, we should do it better.

Finishing is the “Big Kahuna” of productivity. The more things you finish, the more you accomplish. The more you accomplish, the more likely you are to succeed.

Author Philip Roth said, “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress”. What have you started but not finished?

Before you go looking for new ideas and new projects, you might want to dust off some of the half-finished projects lurking on your hard drive or in the recesses of your brain and finish them. Then go work on something else.

Dust off your marketing plan

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Working hard or hardly working?

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All our lives we’ve been told that hard work is essential to success. The person who works harder than other people generally achieves more than other people.

But is that always true? Does someone who earns a million dollars a year work ten times more than someone who earns $100k? What about people who work incredibly long hours every day but continually struggle?

We’ve also been told that there are no shortcuts to success. It doesn’t happen overnight. Okay, then how do you explain the many tech entrepreneurs who are billionaires before they’re 30?

I don’t purport to have all the answers but clearly, there isn’t an absolute causal connection between effort and results, hard work and success. There are other factors at play. That’s why I continually look for ways to work smarter.

Working smarter is about leverage. Getting bigger (or quicker) results with the same or less effort. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do that.

You frequently hear me prattle on about the 80/20 principle. I do that because it is the quintessential illustration of leverage and I encourage you to continually look for ways to use it to increase your income and improve your life.

Where does most of your income come, for example? The odds are that a high percentage of it comes from a few things you’re doing, the so-called “20% activities that deliver 80% of your results”. Look at your practice area(s), target market(s), and marketing methods. You’re likely to see that most of your income comes from a “precious few” things, not from the “trivial many”.

When you find your precious few, do more of them. Get rid of other things to free up time and resources so that you can make that happen.

If 80% of your income now comes from one or two marketing activities, for example, doing more of those activities could increase your income by 160%. That’s because you’ll have two blocks of 20% activities instead of just one.

Back when I was a cub lawyer, struggling to figure things out, I made three changes to what I was doing and my income skyrocketed. In a matter of months. I also went from working six days a week to just three.

So nobody can tell me there aren’t any shortcuts. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s time for my nap.

How I learned to earn more and work less. Yep, it’s all here

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Is this the cure for procrastination?

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You’ve got things you need to do but you don’t want to do them. You may even have things you want to do but for some reason, you’re putting them off. I just heard about a simple way to overcome procrastination, courtesy of the late Raymond Chandler.

As a full-time novelist, Chandler believed that he should maintain a schedule of 4 hours of writing each day but he sometimes struggled to stick with it. He decided to do something about it by creating a simple rule to follow, and it helped him do the job.

Chandler’s rule was simple: either write or do nothing.

And nothing meant nothing.

By giving himself a choice, he avoided the guilt of not writing and thus didn’t force himself to do it, something he was sure would lead to poor results. He quickly found that when you don’t do anything, you get bored and getting back to work feels like a much better alternative.

Chandler’s rule applied to writing but is equally applicable to any task. If you want to try it, schedule a fixed time limit for your work and, perhaps, a fixed time of day. This should make it easier for you to choose the work, knowing that while there might be some unpleasantness, it won’t be never-ending.

In addition, eliminate all of the usual distractions. Close your browser, turn off your phone, and ask your staff not to disturb you. For some tasks, you might consider getting out of the office and going to the library.

Or, do what I did when I was faced with a big stack of files on my desk I had been avoiding for several weeks.

These were problem files and I didn’t want to look at them. I knew I had to but kept putting it off. I was getting anxious about what might happen if I put them off any longer and had to find a way to do it.

I got some help.

I had my wife come to the office and sit across the desk from me. She didn’t do anything or say anything, she just sat with me, silent, giving me the choice of either sitting quietly and doing nothing or digging into the files. I chose the latter and got through them in less than an hour.

It’s amazing what you can when you have a choice to not do them. It’s also amazing what you can do when you have your wife in the room watching you squirm.

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